Never Been Kissed
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Drew Barrymore (Josie Geller), David Arquette (Rob Geller), Molly Shannon (Anita), Michael Vartan (Sam Coulson), John C. Reilly (Gus), Garry Marshall (Rigfort), Leelee Sobieski (Aldys), Sean Whalen (Merkin), Cress Williams (George)
Who hasn't looked at his or her old high school yearbook and thought, "You know, if only I could go back to high school, knowing what I know now...." I've had that thought a million times, and even though I had a positive high school experience, there are still dozens of things I would love to go back and do differently.
This is the situation 25-year-old Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore), a successful copy editor at "The Chicago Sun-Times," finds herself in when she is handed her first undercover reporting assignment: infiltrate a Chicago high school and find out what's going on with today's teenagers. Of course, this is not an original or even outlandish idea--screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein surely had in mind writer/director Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire"), who in the early 1980s spent a year posing as a teenager in a Southern California high school. The result of his work was a short book called "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," which shows in only a few pages infinitely more knowledge about teen life than the entire two hours of "Never Been Kissed."
Josie has a great deal of trouble getting back into adolescence; although she looks like she could pass for 18, her social skills are lacking, to say the least. Her first high school experience was an endless horror show of humiliation. Her nickname was "Josie Grossie," and the reason why is made painfully clear in a number of degrading flashbacks. But, Josie is determined to make the second go-round a success, not only to help her deal with her still-painful teenage wounds, but because she is now a successful, albeit prudish, career woman.
Things are not easy, of course. High school in America is a razor-edged gauntlet run where only the strongest survive intact, and Josie immediately finds herself an outcast all over again. She is soon hanging out with the school nerds, a tight-knit group who called themselves The Denominators and compete in calculus competitions. Josie finds a friend in their leader, Aldys (Leelee Sobieski), but her editor, Gus (John C. Reilly), wants her to hang out with the cool kids because "that's where the story is!"
Josie's saving grace is her 23-year-old brother, Rob (David Arquette), who was a cool jock in high school, but skipped college and is now working in a Hawaiian-themed copy shop. Rob goes back to school with her, and his shameless antics and boundless confidence cause him to instantly hit it off with the popular crowd. He then convinces everyone that Josie is cool despite her appearance, and suddenly she finds acceptance, as well.
"Never Been Kissed" is really a showcase for Drew Barrymore (who executive produced the film), and she is allowed to run the gamut of acting, from wistful romanticism to fall-on-your-face pratfalls. She proves to be quite a good physical comedian; the scene at a reggae bar where she gets hopped up on "ganja cake" and proceeds to bust a move on-stage is almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Some of the flashback scenes of her "Josie Grossie" past--bad hair, pimples, slouching shoulders, oversized braces--are pure comic book silliness. Still, when you see her in flashback getting egged as a cruel joke on prom night, it's hard not to feel a pain deep in your gut. But, whenever the movie works up some emotion, it throws in a few dumb jokes and unrealistic ideas about teenage life, such as when everyone starts saying "rufus" (a new synonym for "cool") because one popular guy openly decrees it is the new word to use. Sorry, but it just doesn't work quite that way.
The movie relies heavily on the greatest of all high school atonement fantasies, the one that lets nerds sleep at night: in the end, the geeks will prevail because they are smart. "Never Been Kissed" is really a dork's dream about getting to do it all over again, and ending up triumphant in front of everyone through dignity and common decency. Josie doesn't have to sink to the level of torturing those weaker than she is in order to shine; she does it by showing others how that kind of behavior will doom them to lives of endless repetition and meaninglessness. Once a jerk, always a jerk. It is only Josie--the one-time ugly duckling--who finds redemption.
The director, Raja Gosnell, made his directorial debut with "Home Alone 3" (1997), but has spent the majority of his years in the movie business editing sentimental comedies by Garry Marshall ("Nine Months," Pretty Woman") and Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Home Alone"). He definitely learned something in all those years, mostly how to pile on the schmaltz when it's most needed. "Never Been Kissed" cranks along much of the time like a typical teen comedy, but it also has a core of romantic sensibility that Gosnell constantly points to with a heavy hand.
When the story begins to turn toward Josie's growing relationship with her attractive English teacher, Sam Coulson (Michael Vartan), the movie begins to unravel because it's dealing with a subject that is above its grasp. The notion of romantic student-teacher relationships is a touchy area, and having Sam giving Josie goo-goo eyes throughout the film isn't so much romantic as it is unsettling. You can write it off by assuming that Sam somehow senses that Josie is in her mid-20s, and not the 17-year-old she claims to be, but it is still somewhat creepy.
Nevertheless, Josie gets her due at the prom and the guy to boot (in a shameless climax that is as contrived as it is sappy), so everything turns out okay. If only everybody's high school experience were tied up in such a pretty bow.
©1999 James Kendrick